To tell the story of a man’s life in a few paragraphs is to skim the wind over the ocean. I was privileged to meet Norbert Blei and become a friend.
Obituary Norbert Blei 1935-2013 Green Bay Gazette April 23 Author, publisher and teacher
Norbert Blei died early Tuesday morning at Scandia Village in Sister Bay, where he had been recuperating from recent surgery. He was 77.A native of Chicago, Blei moved to Door County in 1969 and became a passionate defender of its natural beauty and rural character, working from a converted chicken coop studio in Ellison Bay. He was the author of 17 books, including “Door Way: The People in the Landscape,” “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” He established Cross+Roads Press in 1994 to support the work of local writers and poet. His “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America” recounts the furor he created with a satirical piece in the Door Reminder called “Shut the Damn Door,” advocating for sealing off Northern Door’s natural splendor from tourists. For three decades he taught writing workshops at The Clearing in Ellison Bay and was scheduled to return to the front of the class this summer.
In Memory Of Norbert Blei…My late great coyote brother
I first heard of Norbert in a newspaper article, must have been in the early to mid 80s. Norb’s photo was with the article. He was standing by a newly installed mail receptacle that was there for receiving free shopper papers. He stated that no one asked permission to install any of these beside every mailbox. They were plastic, ugly, another sore sight in beautiful Door County. I took to him immediately. He looked like me with his furry mustache. He had good solid eyebrows, strong shoulders, a granite bold face and in this photo he was pissed off.I was impressed that the article was sent statewide. I was more impressed that the eyes of this man paid attention to detail, to any visual despoiling of an especially beautiful peninsula in neighborhood Wisconsin. I had never been to Door County but I clipped the article and vowed to one day meet the man.
I can’t remember the date of our first meeting. Seems like I had known him all my life. I believe our introduction to each other might have been during a weekend that I was playing a concert with Big Top Chautauqua at the Door Community Auditorium in the late 80s. After the show he took me to one of the funkiest greatest bars I have ever been in and I have been in many a bar in my hopping. The A.C.Tap. The place was all soul. Old. The floor was polished by 50 years of beer. Jukebox. Antique stools. Names carved in the bar-top. My kind of bar. One that welcomes conversation and joviality. We stayed till closing time. He invited me to his place the next day telling me about his hole called The Coop.
I went. It was an old chicken coop books galore, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Paintings. Snippets of poetry. Photographs. An old long-used typewriter. Wisdom in the walls.
He gave me one of his books. I gave him a CD. We both had carved careers out of celebrating a sense of place. We were basically the same guy and would remain brothers throughout our shared time. His recognition of the history of Door County as it yet stood in old people and old buildings was honor to the past and a hope that something would remain of what was because what was authentic. “If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats, He would have given us fiberglass trees.” His written portraits of elders of Door County are priceless. The adage “They don’t make’m like they used to” applies to buildings and people and Norb and I often talked about that, bemoaning the news that an old farmhouse was being torn down, that the old country store was being demolished, that a new Condo development was rising on the heights over Lake Michigan (for me Lake Superior).
He had known about Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a Bayfield Peninsula tent show I founded. Years later, I booked him for a reading at the tent along with Jean Feraca. It was broadcast on Tent Show Radio. He had the perfect radio voice that licked his words. You could definitely hear Chicago, his birthplace, in it.
I never saw him enough but when we were together the stories rolled. As much as I wanted to hear all of what he was up to and writing he kept on with new writers he had discovered and wanted to put into print by his Cross+Roads Press. That was his true gift to the forest of literature. He was a great oak standing in the middle of younger aspiring writers. Generous. Encouraging. Critical– knowing truth from bullshit. Those of us who knew Norb remember well his feather-ruffling in the politics of Door County. More like a coyote’s growl. Again, his eye looking beyond himself.
We, of course, have his books to keep us company. And keep his mind and spirit alive by reading his writing. Incredible life of work. Incredible ship of wisdom that went down. I’m remembering a visit I made to Sigurd Olson’s writing shack out behind his house in Ely, Minnesota. It was kept as it was at the last hour Sigurd walked out the door to go snowshoeing and never returned. Typewriter in place. Chair staring at it. Books, snowshoes, skis, a wool hat on a hook. A museum. I wish The Coop could be left at it was on Norb’s last day. It should be on the Register of Historic Places.
There has been some Door County talk for a couple of years about a new show featuring Norb’s work with me putting music under and over his prose and crafting songs out of his writings and story. I had in mind that Norbert would play himself and I would sit and sing beside the source. Photos old and new of the Door County environs and people would be projected behind the staged program. I have to get this show on the boards. I’m casting myself in the role of Norbert Blei. The show would run 90 minutes or so and hopefully play in the summers forever. I love the thought of new people being introduced to Norbert Blei’s writings far into the Door County and Wisconsin future.
Here’s a poem I wrote in early 2012.
Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster–Warren Nelson April 25, 2013
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.
I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.
Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.
A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.
Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever- old-he- is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.
Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.
Norbert Blei ferries himself across for
All of us.